Joy can strengthen our resolve, help us unlock creativity, and bolster our resilience. In Fix’s Joy Issue, we explore the importance and power of finding joy in the face of grief, anger, and a changing climate.
Jiaying Zhao had never seen a wildfire until she moved to Vancouver. When the cognitive psychologist woke up one morning to find the city wreathed in haze, she felt a visceral shock. “The sky was orange,” she recalls, and going about her day felt “like constantly being in a smoky barbecue.” Yet in the decade that she’s worked in British Columbia, such extreme weather events have become a regular occurrence.
Last November, for instance, while driving to the University of British Columbia, where she works as the Canada Research Chair in Behavioral Sustainability, she passed block after block of downed trees. Power lines dangled, blocking the road. “At first I thought someone was shooting a movie,” Zhao says. In fact, not a half hour before, an extremely rare tornado had touched down on campus. It was one of three natural disasters British Columbia experienced last year, joining a heat dome that killed hundreds of people in June and an atmospheric river that caused extensive flooding last fall.
As the previously unthinkable becomes commonplace, Zhao says many people are grappling with their feelings about the climate crisis. For the last 10 years, she has taught an environmental psychology course, and surveys of her students show significant jumps in their anxiety levels. “It’s getting worse and worse every year,” she says, “and young people are the ones who suffer the most.”
Her students are not alone. A Pew Research Center survey spanning 17 countries found that intense concern about climate has spiked during the last five years, as the vast majority of people said global warming is already affecting where they live. Here in the United States, the number of people who say they’re alarmed about climate has doubled since 2017 to 33 percent.
Yet despite the scale of climate change — or perhaps because of it — Zhao found that many people didn’t seem to be doing anything about it. Some felt overwhelmed or impotent, others ashamed and guilty, she says, “and that’s not an effective way to change.” So when her colleague Elizabeth Dunn, a social psychologist who studies happiness, approached her after a “really boring” faculty meeting and suggested collaborating on a project, Zhao was intrigued.
Together, they developed Happy Climate, a workshop introduced at a TED conference in 2020, and now available online for free. Its goal is to teach people how to reduce their carbon footprint by taking actions that also make them happier. They hope to reframe climate action away from the concept of sacrifices, focusing on what is gained through these behavioral shifts — whether that’s more free time, a healthier lifestyle, or simply a moment of joy. Instead of shaming or scaring people into action, Dunn says, their goal is to ask, “Hey, is there an opportunity for happiness here?”
[Read more: 13 ideas for building a climate-friendly lifestyle you can stick with]
Small steps, big results
The workshop starts with a short video in which Zhao and Dunn explain how small changes to daily decisions can reduce your carbon emissions and make you feel better. The researchers provide specific examples of key behaviors, like flying less.
“Flying is incredibly carbon-intensive,” says Zhao, especially long-haul flights. Traveling one-way from Vancouver to New York, for example, releases over a ton of carbon, or the equivalent of driving 20 miles a day for six months. Simply by flying less during the pandemic, Zhao says she’s managed to save 20 tons of carbon — roughly what a resident of sub-Saharan Africa would burn over two decades.
Most people know traveling less reduces carbon emissions. What they may not consider is what that decision earns them: more time. Many studies have found that people with more time tend to be happier. “Time affluence means feeling like you have enough time to do things that are important to you,” Dunn says from a rental car, on her way from Vancouver to visit a close friend in New Jersey before attending a conference in North Carolina. She used to travel frequently for work, but now limits her long-distance flights and makes a point of arranging trips to include time to catch up with important social connections — the biggest predictor of happiness. “It’s a core example of how the Happy Climate project has made me think differently about my carbon emissions,” she says.
Another target intervention is eating fewer high-carbon foods: Happy Climate recommends identifying which products are the worst for the climate, then consuming them moderately. For instance, two pounds of beef releases nearly one ounce of carbon, while an equivalent amount of chicken emits about a third of that. Instead of viewing these dietary changes as a sacrifice, Dunn suggests they may actually enhance your satisfaction with your menu. “The most important conclusion of happiness research is that abundance reduces our appreciation,” she says. “The more we have of something, the less we tend to enjoy it.” (To sweeten the deal, a 2021 study found that eating more fruits and vegetables actually makes people happier.)
These types of changes, Dunn says, are intended to help people align their concern for the climate with their choices. “Classic research on cognitive dissonance shows that people don’t like to have a conflict between their beliefs and behaviors,” she says. But altering your behavior is hard — and it’s far easier to rationalize a hamburger habit by deciding that individual choices can’t solve climate change.
That’s an attitude Zhao vehemently objects to. “People who can afford to make different choices are typically middle–to-upper class,” she says. Those are the same populations that emit far more than their fair share of carbon: According to an Oxfam study, the richest 10 percent of the world produces almost half of its fossil fuel emissions. Even within the U.S., rich Americans emit far more than their poorer neighbors, who suffer the most from climate consequences. “The impetus for change is on the privileged, and it’s well placed,” says Dunn.
While climate-friendly public policies are also sorely needed, Zhao says individuals can truly make a difference. One recent study suggested that if Americans swapped their beef consumption for beans, the U.S. would achieve more than half of the emissions targets set by the Obama administration. Zhao just completed a study that found helping people use a carbon calculator, then giving them personalized recommendations, has the potential to reduce their annual emissions by 12 percent. “People criticize carbon calculators for shifting too much emphasis away from systemic changes,” she says, “but there is no evidence that if I do more as a person, I will become less active civically.” In fact, her research suggests the opposite may be true.
Change can be contagious
The behaviors Happy Climate emphasizes may seem small, but change can be contagious. One study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests that simply seeing others alter their habits can help people believe they can make different choices, too. This held true even when these changes conflicted with “dynamic norms”: Though the average American eats meat at most meals, when people learned others were trying to eat less meat, they, too, were less likely to choose it for lunch.
This reinforcing power is why Happy Climate’s workshop is designed to be taken in a small group. Participants help each other make plans to change their behaviors, and sharing their goals with others helps them stay accountable. Most importantly, the workshop also guides people through identifying obstacles that might get in their way, brainstorming strategies to cope with those challenges.
The need for this type of work is only accelerating, says Alison Hwong, a psychiatrist and research fellow at University of California San Francisco. “Of course, system-level changes still need to be made, but giving people agency is a great idea,” she says after learning of Happy Climate’s approach. “The climate crisis is real, and labeling it and figuring out how to manage your experience of it without letting it overwhelm you is important.”
That’s especially critical as mental healthcare rushes to catch up to climate stress, or what’s sometimes called eco-anxiety, eco-dread, or climate grief. (“There are no standardized terms yet for the experience of seeing the loss of an inhabitable planet,” Hwong notes.) These global changes have direct effects on mental health, like the acute stress from witnessing natural disasters, and indirect effects, like the disruption of forced migration. “It’s clearly a threat amplifier for mental health, something that exacerbates existing disparities,” Hwong says.
Yet so far, even attempts to characterize the problem have been limited. Psychologists know almost nothing about the psychological impacts of climate change on regions like sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, despite the fact those areas already face life-threatening impacts. “Some people are being hit more strongly and earlier than others,” says Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology who studies climate impacts at the College of Wooster. “But more and more people are experiencing that sense that the place you’re living in is changing before your eyes. And that’s not just sad — it’s disorienting, it undermines what you believe to be true about the world.”
Awareness is growing that the psychological stress this causes can be wide-ranging. In May, the American Psychiatric Association took steps to include climate as a social determinant of health, making it one of the conditions, like where people live and work, that impact their well-being.
[Read more: How psychology is adapting to our climate reality]
“Even if impacts don’t reach the level of a threat to mental health, they are impacting our wellness and our moods,” Clayton says. An expanding body of research demonstrates the significant mental effects of heat; one recent study looking at social media posts, for instance, found an association between extreme temperatures and negative sentiments. Another found one standard deviation increase in temperature is predicted to cause a 10.8 percent increase in conflict, and a 16.2 percent increase in violent crime.
These stressors highlight the urgent need to improve national healthcare policies and expand access to mental healthcare, Clayton says. But there are also things individuals can do on their own to bolster their psychological resilience. Clayton says establishing strong social networks can be a powerful tool, helping people navigate a variety of problems. In her own life, she says, she tries to actively build optimism. To do so, “I try to take meaning from the process, I don’t just think about the outcome.” Even if temperatures climb by 4 degrees, and civilization itself is imperiled, she says, offering an extreme example, “it would still be worth having tried — having made the effort.” But Clayton quickly adds that she doesn’t think such a dire outcome is likely. As the pandemic so aptly demonstrated, behavior patterns and technology can change rapidly. “And that’s another reason to have hope.”
While easier said than done, practices like these can help people find the overlap between contentment and climate action, says Lise Van Susteren, a psychiatrist and cofounder of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance. Like Happy Climate, Van Susteren focuses on helping people take concrete steps in her book, Emotional Inflammation: Discover Your Triggers and Reclaim Your Equilibrium During Anxious Times.
“One of the best ways to decrease anxiety is to engage in empowering actions — that means joining groups that are doing stuff,” says Van Susteren. This observation is borne out in a recent study of university students, which found that taking collective actions can serve as a buffer for climate depression. That’s something Zhao, whose work demands being immersed in the devastating changes unfolding around the globe, sees in her own life. “For me to be at peace, I need to do something about climate, and fast, and have it be meaningful,” she says.
Though Zhao and Dunn hope to expand Happy Climate — they’re currently looking for collaborators to evaluate how successfully it gets people to change their behavior — just working on the project has already changed Zhao’s feelings. “My motivation,” she says, “is how can I sleep better at night?”
Explore more from Fix’s Joy Issue:
- Why musician Mali Obomsawin traded righteous anger for joyous action
- How climate organizers are making joy part of their toolkit
- With their beloved sports at risk, outdoor athletes are taking climate action